Riverdale is a show that feels like it shouldn't exist. It's so uniquely born of not only its ingenious creator, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, but also of its time. An era when studios and networks are desperate to find new ways of mining pre-existing IP and will allow even the strangest and most out there interpretations of the stories that fans know and love. It inverts the classical Americana of Archie and replaces it with a high-camp Twin Peaks inspired strangeness a subversive landscape where queer kids rule high school while cult leaders try to harvest their organs and Goblin Kings lead fatal games of Dungeons and Dragons.
But over a decade before Riverdale hit screens, Aguirre-Sacasa was already reshaping the idyllic nostalgia of Archie Comics to his whim in a now infamous stage play at Dad's Garage in Atlanta that began life as Archie's Weird Fantasy. We say "began life" because a day before the show was supposed to debut, Archie Comics sent a cease-and-desist notice to the production. Why? Well, at the time the theater's artistic director Sean Daniels said "Archie Comics thought if Archie was portrayed as being gay, that would dilute and tarnish his image."
Wait a minute? The creator of Riverdale and now CCO of Archie Comics was once cease-and-desisted by the company he would later save from irrelevancy? And it was because he made Archie gay? Yes, dear readers. In 2003 Aguirre-Sacasa wrote a play that would eventually debut as Weird Comic Book Fantasy. It reimagined Archie as a gay teen and college student making his way through the world. And from reviews of the play it's clear that the delightfully satirical show paved the way for a lot of the commentary and genre play that would become such a huge part of Riverdale and what makes it so special.
If you've watched The CW's naughtiest child, then you probably won't be surprised that Aguirre-Sacasa is a fan and creator of theater. The show often features musical episodes and in-narrative performances of shows that reflect the storylines playing out in the show. In an interesting turn of events, the home of Weird Comic Book Fantasy, Dad's Garage, was not a stranger to legal issues as they had once tried to produce Carrie: The Musical and were denied, and ended up doing their own knock off instead. The reason that's relevant: Riverdale had an entire episode based around that very iconic box office flop turned cult classic.
So what was Weird Comic Book Fantasy actually about? The story follows Buddy (originally named Archie until the cease-and-desist) as he navigates high school, college, and a burgeoning writing career in Manhattan. The show also features numerous other Archie characters--who would later become key Riverdale players--like Tapeworm (Jughead), George (Reggie), Monica (Veronica), Rosie (Betty), and even Dilton Doiley in the guise of Herbert Humphries. In this unofficial version of Archie's life, Dilton is the first boy Archie ever kisses. Aguirre-Sacasa also smartly intertwined the Archie comics riff with two real life court cases that interestingly echo the dark and self-referential nature of what Riverdale would become.
During his college years, Buddy becomes entangled with his roommate Nathan Leopold, who would go on to become a notorious American murderer along with Richard Loeb, who he's plotting with during the course of his relationship with Buddy. That true crime influence is heavily seen in Riverdale. From the very first season the show sets up crimes to be solved and murderers to catch. The other big case is probably far less well known to those who don't love some deepcut comic book history but is an intriguing inclusion nonetheless. After moving to Manhattan, Buddy gets a job at EC Comics, a publisher known for their pulpy horror stories. And with some timeline finagling, Aguirre-Sacasa draws Buddy into the infamous Fredrick Wertham Senate hearings on the moral danger of comic books. While Riverdale has yet to touch on this specific angle, the show is constantly filled with treats for those who know their comic book and movie history.
According to reviews, the play was just as filled with dark pop culture references as the show itself would be. In a 2019 tweet, Aguirre-Sacasa stated that without the play Riverdale wouldn't exist. Maybe it's not too much of a dream to imagine that now he's officially playing in the Archie-verse we might get a revival of the show? Or even an episode which brings it to life in the world of The CW series? That might be a stretch but we'd love to get a chance to see the wild world that Aguirre-Sacasa brought to the stage all those years ago. But how did he go from playwright to CCO of Archie Comics and showrunner of a dark Archie show?
During the '00s, Archie Comics was in a rut. During a train ride, CEO of Archie Comics Jon Goldwater had an encounter that would change the way he saw the nature of the character and his future. While traveling with a large stack of Archie Comics, a fellow passenger stated "I didn't know they still made those!" Which caused Goldwater to decide change was needed. It was a rude awakening that led to the creation of a series of new titles including a relaunch of Life With Archie. It was a horror-drenched variant cover to this series by Francesco Francavilla that ended up inspiring the hit series Afterlife With Archie which would be drawn by Francavilla and written by Goldwater's friend and fellow horror lover Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.
In early 2015, mere months after the series began in October 2014 to much fanfare and critical acclaim, Aguirre-Sacasa was made CCO of Archie Comics and began reshaping the beloved brand to be more inclusive, representative, and much, much weirder. And from the outset it seemed like the plan wasn't just to restore the shine to the comic book characters but to also bring those very same fan favorites to other mediums including film, TV, and theater.
During early interviews in his new role, the creator talked about his dream of an Archie Comics show. "I think that there's a version of the show that is called Riverdale, and is about the town..." Aguirre-Sacasa told Fast Company. "It would be the story of this small town that you think you know, and I think we could really build a show around the three most prominent families in Riverdale--Archie and his parents, Betty and her parents, and Veronica and her father. Then you could introduce other characters from the Archie library." If you've watched Riverdale then you know that stayed as the core of the series that we know and love now.
The weird and wonderful Riverdale debuted on The CW in 2018. And with its queer kids, murder-drenched mysteries, and pop culture heavy references, it feels like a worthy successor to the iconic play that has become a comic book and Hollywood legend since its brief 2003 run.
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